It's All About Aesthetics: What "Analog vs. Digital" Means to Me
Click Here for a Bit of a Foreword...
PS - this is not about "analog vs. digital" in the sense that one is better than the other. I'm a fan of both, use both, and each has its own strengths and weaknesses, advantages and disadvantages, and is best suited for different applications.
Toward the end of last year, I did two analog sessions back to back, one with JKutchma and the Five Fifths, the other with Justin Townes Earle. I had worked with bands tracking to tape before, but the dynamic of both of these sessions had an impact on me that changed my perception of what "analog vs. digital" really means.
I don't think anyone would argue that analog tape sounds different than recording to Pro Tools, or any other digital format. However, to me, the difference between the two goes much deeper than just the audible difference between each platform. I think many people put a lot of focus on the particular "sound" that each possesses, forgetting that there are other factors playing a huge role as to why records done to tape sound and feel different than those done digitally.
Think about this: take any recording that you love from "back in the day" and hypothetically replace the tape machine with digital converters while keeping everything else the same. On the flipside, take a more modern recording done to a digital platform and pretend that analog tape replaced the digital converters (for the sake of example, all editing, plugins, and other processing would still be possible to keep everything consistent). The point is that the specific way in which the sonic energy was captured (either converted to 1s and 0s or to magnetic energy) would, in most cases, probably not make or break whether you like them. The sound would be a bit different, sure, but there are many other considerations that, in my opinion, make a bigger difference.
The big realization I had during these two sessions (I was lead engineer on one, assistant on the other) was that recording to analog tape completely changes the workflow of the session and lends itself to a much different artistic process. First, both bands tracked all of the instruments, and in some cases the vocals, live. With JTE, there were no overdubs whatsoever. This means that everyone (drums, bass, guitars, keys, horns, etc.) had to be completely on top of their game. We were getting takes to 2" tape and then doing transfers to Pro Tools after the fact, so there was no, "well, we'll take this instrument from take one, this from take 2, etc." If one person wasn't happy with their performance, everyone did it again. The point I want to make is that it's just a different mindset. Punch-ins and edits (to some degree) are doable on tape, and more-so once you transfer to PT, but it's not something that is going to be relied on from the get-go like it so often is with purely digital recording. Instead, it's a fallback to fix a take that was otherwise 99% awesome.
We've become spoiled and have widely adopted a "fix-it-in-the-mix" attitude. And not just with a timing issue there, an out of tune vocal here. The tools that can be used to fix minute problems to really make a great performance into an astounding one are abused to make garbage into in-time, in-tune garbage. The advent of cheap digital recording platforms has lowered the par of musicians required to make records, which, in some cases, can be both good and bad. BUT, without sidetracking into that rant, the point is that rather than the "sound" of tape being something that "made" classic records for a lot of people, the level of musicianship required to make a record on that platform had a huge impact on the perception of the final product. When things can or have to be edited and tuned to death, it completely changes the way a song feels. Tiny imperfections aren't inherently a bad thing, they're human, and it's very difficult to edit "humanism" into bad performances.
As I said in the Foreword, I'm not "anti-digital", and that's not what this post is about. I really love working with Pro Tools, and do it a lot more often than tape. But there is, without a doubt, an inspiration I feel when tracking analog that changes the way I work and ultimately transforms the end product. And don't get me wrong, tape certainly does sound different than digital, and it imparts sonic qualities that I find particularly nice on some instruments. But in my opinion, the audible difference is not what has the biggest impact on the overall difference in the sound between an analog and a digital recording.
A perfect modern day example of what I'm talking about is the Foo Fighters tracking their latest record, Wasting Light, to analog tape in Dave Grohl's garage. They won five Grammys, including Best Rock Performance. In response, Grohl stated "that the human element of making music is what’s important... It’s not about being perfect, it’s not about sounding absolutely correct, it’s not about what goes on in a computer, it’s about what goes on in [your heart] and it’s about what goes on in [your head]". Couldn't have said it better myself.